Thursday

8th Dec 2022

EU condemns 'Pegasus' spyware use on journalists

  • "We live in a world where modern states face many threats. Let's not be ridiculous, every country needs such tools," says Hungary's justice minister, Judit Varga (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The EU has condemned spying on journalists, following media revelations that Israeli software was used to hack their smartphones.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (19 July) said the revelations, if proved correct, are "completely unacceptable".

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"Freedom of media, free press is one of the core values of the EU. It is completely unacceptable if this (hacking) were to be the case," she said.

The comments have cast a long shadow over Hungary, whose government also stands accused.

The accusations were made in an international investigation over the weekend by 17 media organisations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories.

They say the spyware known as Pegasus, created by Israeli company NSO, was used to hack the smartphones of government officials, dissidents, journalists and others.

Pegasus enables the attacker to reveal all the content on a phone, including end-to-end encryption messages. It can also turn on the audio or video recorder.

Amnesty International, which carried out the technical analysis behind the attacks, has demanded an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology.

The NSO Group says it carefully vets clients, claiming its software can only be used to hack terrorists and criminals.

But the joint investigation shows otherwise.

"At least 180 journalists around the world have been selected as targets by clients of the cybersurveillance company NSO Group," said Forbidden Stories.

Among them are Hungarian journalists and critics of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban.

Hungarian media outlet Direkt36 took part in the Forbidden Stories investigation.

They identified a handful of Hungarian journalists and critics that had been targeted by Pegasus.

"In addition to them, phone numbers of multiple Hungarian public figures also appear among those selected for targeting," says their report.

A Hungarian government spokesperson denied the reports, suggesting the stories were driven by paranoia.

But later comments made by Hungarian's justice minister Judit Varga appear to confirm the reports.

"We live in a world where modern states face many threats. Let's not be ridiculous, every country needs such tools," she was quoted as saying in Hungarian media.

The revelations have triggered demands for an investigation by European lawmakers, including Orban critic and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.

"No more 'deeply concerned'.... the EU has a dictatorship growing inside of it," he said on twitter.

"We need a full inquiry by the European Parliament!" he added.

Hungary's World Press Freedom Index rating has slipped from 23rd to 92nd since Orban came to power in 2010.

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On Monday, yet another brick in the Hungary's democracy was removed, with the silencing of the Klubrádió station - with devastating implications for press freedom both in the country and the wider EU.

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"We will not continue to work with a customer that is targeting a journalist illegally," Chaim Gelfand, chief compliance officer of NSO Group told MEPs — but shed little light on EU governments' use of its Pegasus spyware.

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The renewed calls for action on Pegasus surveillance in Poland and Hungary came after Hungary's data protection authority, headed by an appointee of prime minister Viktor Orbán, said victims were legitimate targets.

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